Reimagining History

Sighted in the wild, so here’s the contents:


A Letter from Daud al-Musafir al-Khilafahi bin ‘Ammar ibn al-Afrangi
Torque Control — editorial essay featuring interviews with Jo Walton and Guy Gavriel Kay
The Limits of Alternate History — by Edward James
History Around the Margins — by Juliet E. McKenna
History Repurposed: the Celestial Empire stories — by Chris Roberson
First Impressions — book reviews, edited by Paul N. Billinger
Obituary: Douglas Hill — by Jessica Yates
The New X — a column by Graham Sleight

I have to say, I’m happy with how this one turned out, so I hope y’all enjoy it. (And, of course, the first issue of Matrix under the stewardship of Ian Whates, which looks spiffing.) I may even get around to updating the website again. Next issue will be Vector‘s review of 2007, and will see some changes — but more about that closer to the time.

P.S. Less than 53 hours to get your nominations in for the BSFA Awards!

Torchwood

Gareth David-Lloyd the only person involved with any discernible talent? Check.

Still wants to be Angel? So very badly.

Total Bollocks Overdrive? Present and correct. Or rather, as Nic points out, present and very very wrong.

Ah, welcome back Torchwood. It’s like you’ve never been away, but not in a good way. Also, I’m not entirely certain that responding to criticisms that everyone in Torchwood is an idiot by writing a plot that depends on the fact that everyone in Torchwood is an idiot was the right choice for the episode that relaunches the show. But hey, at least it had Spike in it. If you like Spike. Which I don’t.

London Meetings — Change of Venue

Tony Keen has an announcement about the BSFA London Meetings. January’s meeting (Robert Holdstock the guest, a week tomorrow) will take place in the Star Tavern, but after that the upstairs function room will no longer be available. As of February, then, the meetings will take place at:

The Antelope
22, Eaton Terrace
London
SW1W 8EZ

Here are some details for the pub; it’s not actually that far from the Star, but the closest tube stop is now Sloane Square. Here is a map.

EDIT: And here‘s the programme for 2008. Mark your diaries, everyone.

Wednesday 23rd January:
Robert Holdstock, interviewed by Paul Kincaid.

Wednesday 27th February:
Chris Beckett, interviewed by Niall Harrison.

Wednesday 26th March:
Paul Kincaid, interviewed by Graham Sleight.

Wednesday 23rd April:
Ken Slater, interviewed by Peter Weston.

Wednesday 28th May:
Andrew Wilson, interviewed by Tony Keen.

Wednesday 25th June: Terrance Dicks, interviewed by Tim Phipps.

Wednesday 23rd July:
Christopher Priest, interviewed by Paul Kincaid.

Wednesday 27th August:
TBC.

Wednesday 24th September:
TBC.

Wednesday 22nd October:
John Clute, interviewed by Andrew McKie.

Wednesday 26th November:
Party for the BSFA’s 50th anniversary.
(Venue TBC.)

BSFA Awards: Short Fiction

I was hoping to write up some thoughts on my favourite stories of last year, but time is moving on and I don’t seem to be getting around to it. So I’m just going to do what Martin did, and list the stories I’m planning to nominate for the BSFA Awards. You can also see what other members have nominated so far, and the tables of contents for Gardner Dozois‘ and Rich Horton‘s Year’s Best SF books.

So, my nominations:

“The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” by Ted Chiang (F&SF, September)
“Dead Horse Point” by Daryl Gregory (Asimov’s, August)
“Light” by Kelly Link (Tin House 34)
“The Master Miller’s Tale” by Ian R MacLeod (F&SF, May)
Sulphuric Acid by Amelie Nothomb (Faber & Faber)
“Three Days of Rain” by Holly Phillips (Asimov’s, June)
Of Love and Other Monsters by Vandana Singh (Aqueduct Press)
“Dispersed by the Sun, Melting in the Wind” by Rachel Swirsky (Subterranean, Summer)

I read much less short fiction in 2007 than usual, but I read some good stuff. The notable omission from the list, perhaps, is Greg Egan, but although I read three good stories by him (“Glory”, “Dark Integers” and “Steve Fever”), I didn’t think any of them were quite first-rank.

Remember: if you’re a member, the deadline for your nominations is this Saturday.

Yet More Awards

Farah Mendlesohn thinks there’s something missing from the nominees for the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy, specifically the science fiction, and has some suggestions for filling the gap.

While this is a nice idea, I can’t help thinking the Nebulas are now pretty much a waste of space, and that the only viable solution is to take off and nuke the site from orbit. Here’s the full preliminary ballot. I just want to pull out the nominees for Best Novel:

Ragamuffin, by Tobias Buckell (Tor, Jun07)
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, by Michael Chabon (HarperCollins, May07)
Species Imperative #3: Regeneration, by Julie E. Czerneda (full PDF on Private Edition) (DAW, May06)
Vellum: The Book of All Hours, by Hal Duncan (Del Rey, Apr06 (Macmillan hardcover Nov05 (UK)))
The Accidental Time Machine, by Joe Haldeman (Ace, Aug07)
The New Moon’s Arms, by Nalo Hopkinson (Warner Books, Feb07)
Mainspring, by Jay Lake (Tor, Jun07)
Odyssey, by Jack McDevitt (full PDF on Private Edition) (Ace, Nov06)
The Outback Stars, by Sandra McDonald (Tor, May07)
Strange Robby, by Selina Rosen (full PDF and hardcopy offer on Private Edition) (Meisha Merlin Publishing Jul06)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling (Scholastic Press, Jul07)
Rollback, by Robert J. Sawyer (Analog, Feb07 (serialized in Oct06 through Jan/Feb07 issues; Tor book, Apr07))
Blindsight, by Peter Watts (free Creative Commons versions) (Tor, Oct06)

These are, apparently, the novels that professional science fiction and fantasy writers think are the best examples of their craft from the most recent Nebula nomination period. You will see there are a couple of problems with this idea. First is the presence of the names “Jack McDevitt” and “Robert J Sawyer”. Second is the fact that about 40% of the nominees were published in 2006, and one was first published in 2005.

The BSFA doesn’t do a preliminary ballot for its awards, but just as a contrast, here are the nominations received so far for the BSFA Award for Best Novel, which is of course primarily nominated for by fans.

Alice in Sunderland – Bryan Talbot (Jonathan Cape)
Bad Monkeys – Matt Ruff (Bloomsbury)
Black Man – Richard Morgan (Gollancz)
Bone Song – John Meaney (Gollancz)
Brasyl – Ian McDonald (Gollancz)
Glasshouse – Charles Stross (Orbit)
Harm – Brian Aldiss (Duckworth)
Helix – Eric Brown (Solaris)
Ink – Hal Duncan (Macmillan)
Season of the Witch – Natasha Mostert (Bantam)
Selling Out – Justina Robson (Gollancz)
Sixty Days and Counting – Kim Stanley Robinson (HarperCollins)
Sound Mind – Tricia Sullivan (Orbit)
Spook Country – William Gibson (Viking)
Stealing Light – Gary Gibson (Tor)
The Atrocity Archive – Charles Stross (Orbit – collected in The Atrocity Archives)
The Blood Knight – Greg Keyes (Tor)
The Dreaming Void – Peter F Hamilton (Tor)
The Execution Channel – Ken MacLeod (Orbit)
The H-Bomb Girl – Stephen Baxter (Faber)
The Prefect – Alastair Reynolds (Gollancz)
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union – Michael Chabon (Fourth Estate)
Tourniquet: Tales from the Renegade City – Kim Lakin-Smith (Immanion Press)

Now, this is not a list without its own omissions (in my opinion) and oddities (I thought the long-ago magazine publication of The Atrocity Archives would make it ineligible, but apparently not). However, the large majority of these books were eligible for this year’s Nebula Award. Is there anyone out there who wants to argue that, of the two, the Nebula list is a better snapshot of contemporary science fiction? Hell, does anyone want to argue that it includes better books?

This is, of course, not to mention the many excellent novels that were published in the US only this year, and were therefore not eligible for the BSFA Awards. Books by Jo Walton, Susan Palwick, Kathleen Ann Goonan, Robert Charles Wilson, Charles Stross, and Karl Schroeder, for instance. Heck, any of the books on the PKD shortlist wouldn’t have been out of place. Of course, some of them will still be eligible next year, thanks to the Nebula’s rolling eligibility rules. But you do start to wonder what the point of having an award nominated for by professionals is.

In better Nebula news, Abigail Nussbaum points out that Ted Chiang’s nominated story, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”, is already up on the F&SF website. Go forth and read.

Philip K Dick Award Shortlist

I’m on my way out the door, but I just spotted this news:

GREY by Jon Armstrong (Night Shade Books)
UNDERTOW by Elizabeth Bear (Bantam Spectra)
FROM THE NOTEBOOKS OF DR. BRAIN by Minister Faust (Del Rey)
NOVA SWING by M. John Harrison (Bantam Spectra)
GRADISIL by Adam Roberts (Pyr)
ALLY by Karen Traviss (Eos)
SATURN RETURNS by Sean Williams (Ace Books)

The PKD is, of course, given to science fiction novels published in paperback original form in the US. This looks like a fine shortlist to me and hey, I can actually have an opinion — Nova Swing to win!

In other news, looks like we have a Baroque Cycle reading group. Tentative schedule, based entirely on my own constraints: read the three books of Quicksilver in March/April/May, then do The Confusion in May/June, and The Systen of the World in July, possibly stretching into August.

BSFA Awards: Non-Fiction

Nominations for the BSFA Awards need to be received by midnight on Saturday 19th January. That’s a week on Saturday, so for those of you who haven’t made your nominations yet, I thought I’d put up some posts to jog your memories, and encourage you to do so.

First up is the non-fiction award, which after all the debate has reverted to a purer, simpler form:

The Best Non-Fiction award is open to any written work about science fiction and/or fantasy which appeared in its current form in 2007, in print or online.

There are two books that I’m pretty sure I’m going to nominate; I’m still deliberating about shorter works.

The first book is Jeff Prucher’s Brave New Words. This has received, to be kind, mixed reviews, but I am impressed enough to think it deserves a nomination, though I probably wouldn’t vote for it as a winner. The two main criticisms of it, that I’ve seen, have to do with the selection criteria and with the accuracy. On the latter point, it seems to me you have to take any dictionary of citations as a work in progress, and any errors you find as an invitation to contribute a correction; and I didn’t find that many errors, though I’m not convinced that “infodump” was first used by Howard Waldrop as late as 1990. The earliest citation for “science fiction”, by the way, is from W. Wilson’s 1851 Little Earnest Book upon Great Old Subject [sic], which describes “Science-Fiction, in which the revealed truths of Science may be given, interwoven with a pleasing story which may itself be poetical and true — thus circulating a knowledge of the Poetry of Science, clothed in a garb of the Poetry of Life.” That is, if you ask me, a rather fine way of putting it, and I would be surprised if there were citations from much earlier.

As to the selection criteria: Prucher includes five major categories of words: fanspeak, critical terms, sf terms used in a non sf sense (“space cadet”), words that were not coined in sf but are closely associated with it (“cyborg”), and — this may be the controversial one — words coined in sf if they are used either in multiple fictional universes, or in mainstream conversation. Which means “newspeak” (and, entertainingly, “frell”, although not “dren” or — my personal favourite Farscape-ism — “mivonks”), but no “dilithium”. Moreover, there’s nothing since 1999 — an arbitrary line had to be drawn somewhere, and the end of the 20th century is as good a place to draw one as any, but it does mean there’s no entry for “new weird” (or “mundane sf”, or “interstitial”; “slipstream”, being older, does get an entry). Within these parameters, so far as I can tell from a random sampling, the book does its job: I haven’t yet gone looking for something that falls within Prucher’s criteria but isn’t there. So the question is whether you think one or more categories should have been left out, or another category should have been added. I think having all the categories in one book adds richness, and makes simply browsing the thing more enjoyable than browsing a dictionary really should be. And when it comes down to it, this is a dictionary which, with a straight face, having explained in the “note on definitions” that for obvious reasons “they” and “their” are used as singular and plural third-person pronouns, avers that “Definitions of words relating to science fiction fans and writers, however, can be assumed to have human referents” (xxiv).

The second book is The Country You Have Never Seen, by Joanna Russ. Billed as a collection of essays, letters and reviews, it’s really the latter that are the main attraction. The earliest review, from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, is dated December 1966; the latest, from The Washington Post “Book World”, is dated May 10, 1981. They are by no means all reviews of science fiction books — there’s a healthy smattering of more academic reviews, mostly of (as you would expect) more academic feminist texts — and even more than most collections of reviews, it’s a very partial sampling of the field of the time. But they are spectacular. Until now, everything I’ve read by Russ has invoked admiration without enthralling me; it’s probably just down to the fact that here she’s closer to my core interests, but I flat-out enjoyed this book more than any other of Russ’s that I’ve read.

As a critic, Russ is merciless, impressively concise (anyone who wants to know why and how reviewers should quote from the books they read can learn a lot here), and unapologetically funny. Of a particularly poor first novel (Retreat as it Was! by Donna J. Young) she says she wants “to convey as forcefully as possible the absolute, limp, thinness of the book”; then, ‘What is the book about? Hugging, I think. Thirty-nine (non-erotic) hugs and seventeen incidents of weeping occur in one hundred and six pages, which averages out to one hug per 2.7 pages, one weep every 9.4 pages, and one of either (if you’re not picky) every 1.9 pages”(183). Riffing on George Bernard Shaw’s description of plays as either artificial or real rabbits (commercial work is the artificial rabbit, true works of art the real deal), Russ says that “Ben Bova’s Millennium is an artificial rabbit. My copy tried to eat real grass in the back yard and died” (125). She seems to have a particular fondness for James Blish (she reviews more books by him than by any other writer, and cites his criticism more frequently than she cites any other critic, too) and Kate Wilhelm (I am left with a strong desire to seek out and read more Kate Wilhelm), but in general roams pretty widely, even if the unhelpfully sparse table of contents makes it hard to hold a picture of her range in your head.

Perhaps the most striking — and, I have to say, refreshing — aspect of the reviews is that, more than any critic working today, Russ is first, foremost and proudly a science fiction critic. Not for her the present received wisdom that science fiction and fantasy are really, when you get down to it, the same thing; if the Joanna Russ who wrote these reviews still exists, I imagine she would not be terribly impressed with Interfictions or Feeling Very Strange. (But how I would like to know for sure!) It’s not that she necessarily doesn’t like fantasy, but she is more prone to be impatient with it. In one of her columns for F&SF, for instance, she strongly criticises a slate of fantasy novels, drawing a storm of protest letters. Her response?

I know it’s painful to be told that something in which one has invested intense emotion is not only bad art but bad for you, not only bad for you but ridiculous. I didn’t do it to be mean, honest. Nor did I do it because the promise held out by heroic fantasy, the promise of escape into a wonderful Other world, is one I find temperamentally unappealing. On the contrary, it’s because I understand the intensity of the demand so well (having spent my twenties reading Eddison and Tolkien; I even adapted The Hobbit for the stage) that I also understand the absolute impossibility of ever fulfilling that demand. The current popularity of heroic fantasy scares me; I believe it to be a symptom of political and cultural reaction due to economic depression. […] That our literary heritage began with feudal epics and marchen is no reason to keep on writing them forever. […] Reality is everything. Reality is what there is. Only the hopelessly insensitive find reality so pleasant as to never want to get away from it, but painkillers can be bad for the health, and even if they were not, I am damned if anyone will make me say that the newest fad in analgesics is equivalent to the illumination which is the other thing (besides pleasure) art ought to provide. (169-70)

Other contenders? I haven’t read it yet, but if Mike Ashley’s Gateways to Forever is as the other volumes in his history of magazines, and reports seem to suggest that it is, then it would be a worthy nominee. And the SF Studies issue devoted to Afrofuturism that Adam Roberts mentions in his contribution to the Strange Horizons year-in-review sounds interesting. But I must have missed things. What else was out there?

Reading Resolutions

I wasn’t going to make any reading resolutions for 2008, or at least not any major ones — what’s the point of being free from award-submission reading if I can’t go where my whims take me for a while, after all? But then I came across Larry’s post, and while not everything he says goes for me (I definitely don’t want to review at least 50 books in 2008; maybe more like 30), most of it does. Additional to those, then, I’ll add:

1. Read The Baroque Cycle. This is the sort of thing I’ll never get around to reading unless I make a project of it, not because I don’t want to read it — I badly do — but because it’s so big that I’ll want to wander off and read something shorter half-way through. But if I say, up front, that I’m going to read The Baroque Cycle this year, I might actually manage it.

2. Read A Suitable Boy. Back when I started seeing the ever-radiant Nic (yes, of Eve’s Alexandra fame), we agreed that we would each read five books that the other recommended. She’s read most of mine; I’m way behind. In my defense, this is because one of her picks is this, Vikram Seth’s 1500-page opus, forced on me in a second-hand bookshop when I dared express a preference for short books. As of May, my excuse for not reading it will expire, so if I suddenly fall silent sometime that month, you’ll know why.

3. Catch up on my YA reading. I’ve accumulated quite a little pile of YA titles over the past eighteen months or so — Octavian Nothing, The Green Glass Sea, Flora Segunda, Life As We Knew It, How I Live Now — and this seems like a good time to finally get around to reading them. Plus, they should be nice an d quick, which will balance out the Seth/Stephenson effect.

4. Read for parallax. I’ve been playing around with ideas of what books I want to write about here. I suspect most of my reviews of new sf titles will go to other places — Vector, Strange Horizons, NYRSF and Foundation. What I think I want to do here is, on the one hand, short fiction, and on the other, clusters of books that I haven’t read before but that (in theory) resonate in some way. So, for example, I might do a climate change binge including some or all of JG Ballard’s The Drowned World, George Turner’s The Sea and Summer, Mary Rosenblum’s Water Rites, Maggie Gee’s The Flood, TC Boyle’s A Friend of the Earth, and Stephen Baxter’s (forthcoming) Flood. (What’s the first climate change novel? Do we count The Kraken Wakes?)

All-in, I think I’m going to aim for about 60 books in 2008; I find that reading at the rate I’ve been doing for the past couple of years doesn’t leave enough time for thinking, let alone writing. But we’ll see how it goes.